You’ve joined a CSA (and have learned to prepare vegetables you’d never even heard of five years ago). You frequent the weekly Farmer’s Market, not just in your town, but in the surrounding towns. You know the local farms and brands and buy them whenever possible over commercial milk, cheese, eggs and other food products. What else can you do to keep local family farms vital and sustainable?
This is one of the questions I ask myself with some regularity. I am passionate about the importance of agriculture as an economic engine in the Hudson Valley and small farms are at the heart of this economy. There must be more we can do to support the hardworking farm families that juggle low milk prices, high land values and the dazzle of promises, as well as for the young farmers who are choosing a 21st century lifestyle of sustainable farming to feed us and our children fresh, healthy and nutritious food.
We all know farmland preservation is critical — that more than an acre of farm and ranch land is lost every minute to development in this country. But farmland needs to be farmed or it’s not really farmland preservation, is it?
So, I’ve been trying to understand the economics of farmland preservation: How can we better match landowners with prime soils and grazing land with young farmers in a way that works economically and sustainably for both sides. How can we help discouraged long-time farmers feel the love? How can we balance jobs, smart growth and protection of our soil, water and air.
One of the most pro-active approaches is the pioneering new local law just passed in the Town of Red Hook. The result of a long and thorough public review process, the Centers & Greenspaces plan, as it is known, concentrates development in planned Traditional Neighborhood District while preserving farmlands within an Agricultural Business District.
According to Red Hook Today, the online news source, local and regional land-use experts identify three critical benefits to the innovative new law: Protecting Red Hook’s rural character; preventing higher property taxes associated with over-development; and promoting economic vitality and quality of life especially within Red Hook Village.
Chatham in Columbia County has also made a long term commitment to remaining a sustainable agricultural community, in their case through Chatham Keep Farming, a partnership with NY State Ag and Markets and Glynwood, the Cold Spring-based not for profit that works at the intersection of communities, farmers and landowners to help communities in the Northeast save farming.
There are community-based organizations in neighboring Massachusetts that have been very effective in helping support local farms. A New York State dairy farmer recently asked on Twitter why New York State doesn’t have Keep Local Farms, a program which educates consumers about the value of New England dairy farms by connecting consumers with local dairy farmers and encouraging the purchase of local foods. Why not indeed?
The Western Massachusetts based CISA (Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture) — is another model with the goal of strengthening links between farmers and communities. It began in 1993 as a consortium of educational and nonprofit organizations which formed to identify and address issues facing agriculture in the soil rich Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts. CISA now covers a region that includes the cities of Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke, the academic communities of Amherst and Northampton, as well as rural hill towns, aging mill towns, and suburban communities, engaging folks in everything from farming and festivals to advocacy and ag infrastructure.
This weekend a number of farm-friendly organizations and businesses are joining forces at the Copake Country Club for the Friends of the Farmer Festival for Hudson Valley Food Lovers, a full day (11 am to 11 pm) of local music, exhibitors, food, drink. There will be kids’ activities, panels by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and a “Farm-Friendly Libations Tent” — in other words something for absolutely everyone.
Share your thoughts about what we can do together here in the Hudson Valley. As further — ok, pun intended — food for thought: Here’s a parting observation from American Farmland Trust’s David Haight: “More than 6,000 farmers in New York (about 30% of all farmers who have their primary income from agriculture) are older than 65. They manage roughly 1.5 million acres of farmland. Transitioning this land to a new generation of farmers – and not into the hands of developers – will be a big challenge for all us!”